GJIA’s online editor Gideon Hanft recently revisited an interview piece that GJIA conducted with Kenneth Waltz, one of the founders of structural realism. A centerpiece of Waltz’s work is his theory on nuclear deterrence. Waltz argued that contrary to popular belief, nuclear weapons actually create a more peaceful world by raising the cost of war and prospects of mutually assured destruction. Hanft agreed with Waltz’s theory that the imposition of the threat of nuclear weapons has prevented nations from acting against military provocations. States prioritize their own survival and thus rationally will not risk a nuclear exchange by engaging in conventional warfare with other nuclear nations. This train of thought has been shown to apply to even rogue nations; no matter how isolated or resistant to international pressure certain states are, they still prioritize survival and recognize the danger of nuclear weapons. This section is perfectly reasonable.
Hanft then introduces that Waltz himself accounted for non-state actors acquiring nuclear weapons. He says, summarizing Waltz, “that terrorists have always had greater opportunities to inflict damage then they have displayed, and they have avoided such attacks. Nuclear attacks would not help a terrorist group’s image.” Thus, the threat of terrorists with nuclear weapons is overblown. Notably, the argument slides over issues of nuclear security—the threat of weapons or technology being stolen—and instead concentrates on whether or not a non-state actor will use a weapon.
The underlying argument is that non-state actors will not act because they are afraid of the negative image associated with the use of such weapons. Yet that line of reasoning is problematic on multiple levels. First, it offers a generalization of terrorist groups that is not true across the board. Religious or reactionary extremist groups by theory would not prioritize their image over fixing the “problems” that they perceive in the world, mostly through the use of force. Moreover, there has been evidence that non-state actors have attempted to acquire nuclear technology. There is truth to the statement that one may fear a nation with multiple nuclear weapons, but one should be terrified by the knowledge that a non-state actor has a single one.
Second, it seems ridiculous to fully assume that nuclear weapons will not be used in the wrong hands and concede the increase in nuclear insecurity that comes from proliferation. The ultimate aim of any true mutually assured destruction theorist should be full proliferation of nuclear weapons; if all states had nuclear weapons, no state would want to go to war. But the spread of nuclear weapons through states with weak political systems and institutions, along with the means to guard them, only opens the route for non-state actors to acquire them. Thousands of shoulder-mounted surface to air missiles, each capable of bringing down not just civilian jet liners but also military aircraft, were stolen and lost in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution as army ammunition depots were left completely unguarded in the resulting chaos. The mere threat that a non-state actor has the ability to use nuclear weapons will redirect a multitude of resources from any threatened nation’s budget to prevent such an attack from occurring, and rightly so. For the United States, that would mean completely reversing the half trillion dollar cuts to defense spending projected over the next 10 years.
Finally, the central thesis of mutually assured destruction, namely that it works on state-to-state interaction because states are territorially obliged to protect their own borders, does not apply to non-state actors that do not have such obligations. There is no threat of retaliation which non-state actors will take seriously simply because there is no state for a threatened nation to launch nuclear missiles against. This means that in a nuclear world, there is no measure preventing a dedicated non-state actor from using nuclear weapons and thus non-state actors have a unique advantage that they may employ over states in a way that prevents the fulfillment of foreign policy goals.
It comes down to this question: what if a non-state actor with a nuclear weapon does not care about its image? Prudent state action should never allow such a possibility, no matter how small, to become reality.
Lucas Chan is a freshman at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal's online content.